Shortly before Barack Obama began his presidential campaign, I spent an afternoon with him discussing Just Congregations, the community organizing initiative uniting Reform Jewish synagogues across the country. I was struck by the intensity with which Obama listened and by the probing nature of his questions. He wasn’t satisfied with what; he wanted to know why. He wanted to know not just about the initiative’s mission and goals, but about me: Why did I believe in the work I was doing?
That inquisitiveness directly relates to Obama’s experience as a community organizer. Among the most critical qualities of an effective organizer is an authentic curiosity about others. Obama learned early on that to be powerful in public life, a leader needs a strong network of people who will follow him; consequently, he knows people only follow leaders who understand their values, concerns and motivations.
What will it mean to have a community organizer serve as President? The answer has significant implications about the way Obama will govern, our ability to have an impact in Washington, and more broadly about what organizing can teach about being an effective force for justice.
Our President-elect understands a core principle of organizing – that the power to make change comes from people acting together – and the way Obama ran his campaign hints at how he will govern. Pundits referred to the “ground-game” with emphasis on field offices and voter turnout efforts but rarely explained the person-to-person effort. Obama’s field organizers reached out to thousands of volunteers, treating them like leaders by letting them develop their own strategy to get commitments from voters. In this way, the campaign built a grassroots movement, recruiting, training and spreading the campaign across the country, neighborhood by neighborhood.
Obama must govern the same way he campaigned, emphasizing local leadership and engaging a broad, energized constituency. Respected community organizer Saul Alinsky liked to tell a story about Franklin Roosevelt: After a White House meeting with advocates, the president said, “You’ve convinced me. Now go on out and bring pressure on me!” To pass large-scale reform, Obama will have to mobilize the American people to pressure Congress and fight special interests.
Obama’s presidency also creates an enormous opportunity for people of faith. This administration will keenly understand the need for organized constituencies to support its agenda, which challenges us to do more than simply speak out on issues of social justice – we must also organize around those issues. We should see our member congregations as networks able to organize local communities to advocate for issues that reflect our most deeply held values.
The Union for Reform Judaism’s health care initiative is a powerful example. Across the country, Reform Jewish congregations are fighting for health reform on a statewide level, supported by community organizing but entrusted to determine for themselves the best local-level strategies. When Obama puts forward a proposal on health reform, we won’t be just another interested group in Washington – we will be an organized constituency willing to fight for affordable health care.
While organizing in Chicago churches, Obama discovered the power of organized people to make real change in the world and discovered the power of religious traditions to inspire those people and articulate their shared values. He understands community organizing as redemptive because, through organizing. local people take responsibility for transforming their own lives. I believe he also sees it a religious pursuit. In defending his campaign theme of hope, Obama said, “Hope is the bedrock of this nation. The belief that our destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by all those men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.” That powerful phrase reflects the idea of the transformation of the world as it is into the world as it should be, language Obama and I learned in our community organizing training. Our teachers didn’t make it up either – they learned it from the biblical language of redemption.
On the eve of this new era, let us look no further than ourselves to find the leadership to transform the world. That’s where the power lies.
Rabbi Jonah Pesner is the Founding Director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Just Congregations. He received his training as a community organizer from the Industrial Areas Foundation, the same group that trained President-elect Barack Obama.